The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s organization in continuous existence in the world. In addition, it was among the first groups to keep a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to promote its agenda.
- Early Years
- Carry A. Nation
- WCTU Matures
The group’s name is the “Woman’s” rather than “Women’s” Christian Temperance Union. That’s because it’s the individual woman who takes the temperance pledge. However, most people think it’s the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
I. Early Years
Women were very active in public activities and political matters throughout the 19th century. This was especially the case when the issue was seen as a moral one. The first major issue women addressed was the abolition of slavery. The second was the attack on drinking.3
The group reports that “The WCTU was organized by women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol and the problems it was causing their families and society.”1
It elaborates that “In many towns in Ohio and New York in the fall of 1873 women concerned about the destructive power of alcohol met in churches to pray and then marched to the saloons to ask the owners to close their establishments.”2 This was the Women’s Temperance Crusade.
They then established the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. At first it was local. But organizers thought it should become nation-wide. Therefore, the next summer they established the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Within the first five years, the WCTU established a network of over 1,000 local units or “unions.” It also began publishing a journal, Our Union. The group continues to publish that journal today.
The WCTU defines temperance as “moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.” 4 It considers any amount of alcohol to be harmful. For this reason it rejects the mainstream Christian belief. That is, that the consumption of alcohol in moderation is not sinful.
The WCTU similarly rejects the medical consensus that drinking in moderation is healthful. Instead, it promotes total abstinence.
National Prohibition (1920-1933) was a cultural war. It was between Protestants who were already well-established in North American and the newer Catholic and Jewish immigrants. The latter typically drank alcohol beverages as part of their cultures.
In addition, Protestants tended to live in rural areas and towns. On the other hand, the newer immigrants tended to settle in large cities. This also caused another division. 5
WCTU membership included women from nearly every sector of American life. However, it consisted largely of lower-middle and middle-class women. They tended to have strong ties to evangelical Protestant churches.
The WCTU had chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada with a very large membership. But for years it did not accept Catholic, Jewish or African-American women. Nor women who had not been born in North America. This also reflected the cultural conflict.
When the WCTU began accepting African-American women, they were organized into separate chapter or unions. Black members tended to be teachers or other professional.
“Americanization” of Immigrants
The WCTU was anxious to “Americanize” new immigrants. That is, to persuade them to abstain from alcohol beverages. During first two decades of the twentieth century much of its budget was spent on its center on Ellis Island. The goal was to begin this “Americanization” process. The WCTU was especially concerned about the immigration of Irish and Germans. It believed they threatened temperance and the promotion of prohibition.
One WCTU leader expressed strong concern over “the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world, men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol].” So she peppered her writing with references to this “undesirable immigration” and “these immigrant hordes.” 6
The temperance movement was largely anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, anti-German and anti-Semitic. 7 The WCTU also supported eugenics. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) actively promoted Prohibition and its strict enforcement. In fact, the WCTU and the KKK were partners. Many women belonged to both the WCTU and the KKK. They sometimes held leadership positions in both organizations.
The Ohio Historical Society made an important observation. “From the mid 1870s to the early 1890s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the major organization within the United States seeking Prohibition.”
The Society continued. “Its members utilized rather extreme tactics to convince Americans to abstain from alcohol. Members picketed bars and saloons. They prayed for the souls of the bar patrons. They also tried to block the entryways of establishments that sold liquor.” 8
II. Carry A. Nation
Yet these tactics were tame in comparison to those of perhaps the WCTU’s most famous member, Carry A. Nation. (Carrie is also correct.) She founded a chapter of the group in Kansas. Nation believed that God guided her. And she was imposing as a stout six foot tall woman. She would storm into drinking establishments dressed in a black dress and bonnet. Nation had a bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other. By the time she left, her aggressive vandalism would have caused considerable destruction.
Historian Lindsey Williams described one of her expeditions before she had begun using a hatchet.
Carry took the train to Wichita and spent the first day searching for an appropriate victim. She had not intended to make herself known just yet, but lost her composure in the Hotel Carey bar room.
A large, risqué painting of Cleopatra At Her Bath caught her eye. She marched up to the bartender and shook her quivering forefinger at him. “Young man,” she thundered, “what are you doing in this hellhole?”
“I’m sorry, madam,” replied the bartender, “but we do not serve ladies.”
“Serve me?” she screamed. “Do you think I’d drink your hellish poison?” Pointing to Cleopatra, she demanded, “Take down that filthy thing, and close this murder mill.”
With this she snatched a bottle from the bar and smashed it to the floor. Carry marched out of the bar room amidst incredulous stares of the many imbibers.
Returning to her room she withdrew a heavy wooden club and an iron bar from her suitcase and bound them into a formidable weapon.
In the morning she returned to the Hotel Carey, concealing her club and a supply of stones under the black cape that became her trademark. Without a word, she began her labors by demolishing Cleopatra At Her Bath. “Glory to God, peace on earth and goodwill to men,” she shouted as she flailed against mirrors, bottles, chairs, tables and sundry accessories. Whiskey flowed in rivers across the floor.
The hotel detective found Mrs. Nation beating furiously on the long, curving bar with a brass spittoon. “Madam,” he said sternly, “I must arrest you for defacing property.”
“Defacing?” she screamed. “I am destroying!” 9
Police arrested Nation 30 times. Yet her resulting notoriety proved both useful and profitable. She became known internationally for her “hatchetations.” As a result of her efforts the Kansas WCTU presented her with a gold medallion. It carried the inscription, “To the Bravest Woman in Kansas.” 10
Her lectures, publications, the sale of miniature hatchets, etc. generated substantial income for the rest of her life.
III. WCTU Matures
The WCTU provided a mechanism through which many women expressed their views on social and political issues. Indeed, it considered itself the voice of all American women.
In a congressional hearing in 1929, the president of the WCTU shouted “I represent the women of America!” But when Pauline Sabin heard that she thought, “Well, lady, here’s one woman you don’t represent.”11 Consequently she organized the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WNOPR).
Her organization challenged the assumption that virtually all women in the country supported National Prohibition.
Not a One-Issue Group
Although the WCTU is most closely associated with the prohibition of alcohol, it has never been a one-issue organization. Frances Willard was the second president of the organization. She asserted that “Our policy is ‘The Do-everything-policy, and do it all the time.'” 13
Accordingly, it has addressed a number of other social reform issues.
- “Lust-free” marriage
- Abstinence from tobacco
- Public health
- Homosexuality (its term)
- Labor rights
- Premarital chastity
- International peace
- Dress reform
- Illicit drugs
- Same-sex marriage
- Women’s rights,
- “War on Christmas”
- Display of Scripture in public places
- Maintaining Blue laws prohibiting golf and other leisure activities on Sundays.
The group currently emphasizes abstinence from alcohol and drugs, pornography, same-sex marriage, premarital sex, and gay sex. On the other hand, it promotes keeping Christ in Christmas. Therefore, it opposes the use of “happy holidays.”
The WCTU remains vocal on issues about which it is concerned. For example, the Amethyst Initiative is an effort by many college presidents to promote discussions about how best to reduce alcohol abuse. Also alcohol-related problems among young people, including adults 18-20 years of age.
The WCTU responded to this call for public discussion about alcohol. In so doing, it presented the Amethyst Initiative with the first annual WCTU Millstone Award. It explained that “The Millstone Award was created to bring public awareness to a person, organization, or governmental body that creates or uses their (sic) position of influence to promote unhealthy (sic), illegal, or immoral behavior that we believe places children at risk.” 14
President Obama shared a beer with Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. and James Crowley at the White House. The press dubbed it “the beer summit.” However, the president of the WCTU complained about the choice of beverage. She said that “There are so many other beverages he could have chosen that would have served just as well.” Instead, she suggested lemonade or iced tea. 15
Currently, the WCTU claims 5,000 members, a staff of four, and an annual budget of $250,000. However, the Union Signal has a circulation of only 550. 16 The group describes itself as dedicated to educating young people. Specifically about the harmful effects of alcohol, illegal drugs, and tobacco. It also works to build support for total abstinence from alcohol.
National Prohibition was ineffective and created horrendous problems. Nevertheless, many people today support neo-prohibition ideas. They also strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to remain.
Today almost one of five U.S. adults favors prohibition. They favor outlawing the the consumption of alcohol by everyone. However, not even National Prohibition made drinking alcohol illegal!
IV. Membership Information
Membership in the WCTU grew rapidly during the early decades and through National Prohibition (1920-1933). It reached 372,355 in 1931. Although Repeal occurred in 1933, membership stood at 257,548 in 1951. By 1989, it claimed 50,000 members, with chapters in 72 countries. As indicated above, it currently claims 5,000 members but its magazine has a circulation of only 550.
Current Membership Requirements
The current membership requirements are:
- Children from birth up to age six may be enrolled as White Ribbon Recruits of the WCTU. Their parents or guardians must pledge to teach them total abstinence.
- Those of elementary school age may join the Loyal Temperance Legion. They pay minimum yearly dues and sign the following pledge. “That I may give my best service to home and country, I promise, God helping me, not to buy, drink, sell, or give alcoholic liquors while I live. From other drugs and tobacco I’ll abstain, and never take God’s name in vain.”
- Teenagers may join the Youth Temperance Council by paying yearly dues ($10.00). They sign the following pledge. “I promise, by the help of God, never to use alcoholic beverages, other narcotics, or tobacco, and to encourage everyone else to do the same, fulfilling the command, ‘keep thyself pure.'”
- Women join the WCTU by paying yearly dues as set by their respective state WCTU. They sign the following pledge. “I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine, beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same.”
- Men may become Honorary members of the WCTU. They sign the same pledge of total abstinence women do. Also they pay yearly dues as set by their state WCTU. However, men do not have voting rights.
Prominent women who have been associated with the WCTU include Frances Willard (second president). Carry A. Nation, activist. Annie Turner Wittenmeyer (first president). Mary Hanchett Hunt (Superintendent of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges). Also Amelia Stone Quinton, Anna Adams Gordon, Ella Reeve Bloor, Hannah Clark Johnston Bailey, Hannah Witall Smith, and Martha McClellan Brown.
Discover more about these and other Women Leaders of Temperance and Prohibition.
The Non-Partisan WCTU
The WCTU was formed as non-partisan and is today. The first president of the organization was Annie Wittenmeyer. She strongly supported a non-partisan approach. However, she was voted out of office in favor of Frances Willard. The latter wanted the WCTU to support the Prohibition Party. Of course, that would make it partisan.
Many members strongly opposed this move. And one of the most powerful was Judith Horton Foster. She was one of the original organizers of the organization.
Foster entered official protests at annual conventions. And she did so four years in a row. But it was futile. So the Iowa Union and about 10,000 members left. Under Foster’s leadership, they formed the Non-partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (NWCTU).
Presidents of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
The presidents of the WCTU and their terms of office: 17
1874 – 1879 – Annie Turner Wittenmeyer
1879 – 1898 – Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard
1898 – 1914 – Lillian M. N. Stevens
1914 – 1925 – Anna Adams Gordon
1925 – 1933 – Ella Alexander Boole
1933 – 1944 – Ida Wise Smith
1944 – 1953 – Mamie White Colvin
1953 – 1959 – Agnes Dubbs Hays
1959 – 1974 – Ruth Tibbets Tooze
1974 – 1980 – Edith Kirkendall Stanley
1980 – 1988 – Martha Greer Edgar
1988 – 1996 – Rachel Catherine Bubar Kelly
1996 – 2006 – Sarah Frances Ward
2006 – 2014 -Rita Kaye Wert
2014-2019 – Sarah Frances Ward
2019- present – Merry Lee Powell
Members pledge allegiance to the completely white temperance flag. The pledge is simple. “I pledge allegiance to the Temperance flag, emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits; the white flag that surrenders to nothing but purity and truth, and to none but God, whose temples we are.” 18
President Frances Willard addressed fellow WCTU members as “beloved comrades of the white ribbon army.” 20
V. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union by State
Hamilton, J. The Story of the Alabama Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. WCTU, 1959.
Knoll, J. A History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Arkansas. Little Rock: WCTU, 1951.
The Arizona Sunbeam. Tucson: WCTU.
Hand Book of the California Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. San Francisco: WCTU, 1912.
Spencer, D. A History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union . Oakland: West Coast Print, 1913.
A History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of California. WCTU, 1924.
Connecticut Counselor. Putnam: WCTU, 1935.
Weldin, A. Background and History of Delaware Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Wilmington: WCTU, 1969.
The Florida White Ribbon News. Ft. Pierce: WCTU.
Ansley, J. History of the Georgia Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.Columbus: Gilbert, 1914.
Ogawa, M. Trans-Pacific Activism of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1886-1945. Ph.D. diss, U HI, 2004.
Sermon, S. “Beyond Simple Domesticity”: Organizing Boise Women, 1866-1920. M.A. thesis, Boise State U, 1996.
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Illinois. Chicago: WCTU, 1943.
Taylor, B. Indianapolis Central Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Historical Report. Indianapolis: WCTU, 1958.
Garner, N. For God and Home and Native Land. The Kansas Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1878-1938. Ph.D. diss, U KS, 1994.
Woodring, P. A Glorious Past and a Promising Future. A Brief History of the Kentucky WCTU, 1880-1995. Bethany: Bethany Christ Mission Cent, 1996.
Reports of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Louisiana. Welsh: WCTU of LA.
Annual Report of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of the State of Maine. Hallowell: Maine W.C.T.U.
Address of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to the Voters. Boston: WCTU, 1877.
State Temperance Fair of the WCTU. Boston: WCTU of MA, 1876.
Gilbert. E. The History of Lansing Central Union, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1949. Lansing: WCTU, 1949.
Hoag, A. and Matthew W. Historical Sketch of the Montana Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Helena: MT WCTU, 1912.
Butts-Runion, B. . “Through the Years.” A History of the First Seventy-Five Years of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Missouri (1882-1957). WCTU of MO, 1957.
Heider, C. Suffrage, Self-Determination, and the Women’s (sic.) Christian Temperance Union in Nebraska, 1879-1882. Rhe Pub Aff, 2005, 8(1), 85-107.
Silveira, III, J. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. An Army of Women Marching Towards Suffrage, 1874-1920. M.L.S. thesis, U NH, 2002.
Austin, J. Historical Sketch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union–: 1881-1896. Littleton, NH: Courier, 1897.
Strong, H. Golden Anniversary of the New Jersey Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1924. WCTU of NJ, 1924.
O’Leary-Siemer, C. Roots of the New Mexico Women’s Movement. M.A. thesis, U NM, 1997.
Graham, F. Four Decades. A History of Forty Years’ Work of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of the State of New York. NY: Salvation Army Press, 1914.
Graham, F. Sixty Years of Action. A History of Sixty Years’ Work of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of the State of New York. Lockport: WCTU of the State of New York, 1934.
Wahl, S. The Activities of the WCTU of New York in Relation to Alcoholic Beverage Legislation in New York, 1934-1960. Ph.D. diss, NYU, 1966.
Sims, A. The sword of the spirit. The WCTU and moral reform in North Carolina, 1883-1993. NC Hist Rev, 1987, 64(4).
Ellsworth, V, and Anderson, E. North Dakota’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Mandan: Ellsworth, 1990.
Ervin, M. Ohio Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Columbus: OH WCTU, 1949.
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Ohio History Central, 2005. Ohio Hist Soc.
Whitaker, F. A History of the Ohio Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1920. Ph.D. diss, OH State U, 1971.
House, E. Oklahoma Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Who’s Who in Oklahoma, 1958.
History, Pennsylvania Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Quincy, PA: Quincy Orphanage, 1937.
History of the Pennsylvania Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1937-1974. Manheim, PA: Stiegel, 1976.
Mims, F. Recorded History of South Carolina Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1881-1901. Edgefield: SC WCTU, 1950.
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of South Dakota, 1988. OCLC Number 2000607.
Swartz, E. History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Dakota. Rapid City: Daily J, 1900.
Beard, M. The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State. Kingsport: Kingsport Press, 1962.
Jones, R. Up Rugged and Isolated Paths. Helen M. Stoddard as President of the Texas Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1891-1907. M.A. thesis, San Jose State U, 1995.
McArthur, J. Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The Handbook of Texas. Austin: Texas State Hist Assn, 2010. Available online.
Minutes of the Fifteenth Annual Convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Utah. Held at Salt Lake City: Oct 20-21, 1905.
Voters – Read, Think, Act. The Liquor Traffic Legal and Illegal. WCTU, 1905.
Ironmonger, E, and Phillips, P. History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Virginia. Richmond: Cavalier, 1958.
McMillen, M. History of East Washington’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1883-1953. WCTU, 1953.
Yost, L. Hand Book for Local Unions of the West Virginia Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Morgantown: WV WCTU, 1909.
VI. Resources (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union)
3. Mezvinsky, N. The White Ribbon Reform, 1874-1920. Ph.D. diss, U WI, 1959.
5. Gusfield, J. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana, IL: U IL Press, 1986.
6. Hunt, M. An Epoch of the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Foster, 1897, p.63.
7. Hanson, D. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996, p. 21.
8. WCTU and ASL. History Vault. Temperance and Prohibition, 1830-1933. Reprint 2020.
9. Williams, L. Carry Nation left hatchet home on Punta Gorda visit. Sun Coast Media Group, Jan 15, 1995.
10. McMillen, M., and Trout, C. Cary A. Nation (1846-1911). State Hist Soc of Missouri.
11. Murdock, C. Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U Press, 1998.
12. Ref. to omitted material.
13. Willard, F. Address Before the Second Biennial Convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Twentieth Annual Convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Chicago: Woman’s Temp Pub Assn., 1893.
15. Tomsho, R. White House ‘Beer Summit’ Becomes Something of a Brouhaha. Wall Street J, July 30, 2009, p. 1.
16. National Woman’s Christian Union (WCTU) site.
18. WCTU of Maryland.
20. Willard, F. (1893).
- Blocker, J. The Women’s Temperance Crusade, 1873-1874. Westport, CT: Grenwood, 1985.
- Bowman, T. The Influence of the WCTU on Women’s Suffrage. Wright State U, 2001.
- Cook, S. “Through Sunshine and Shadow.” The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Evangelism, and Reform in Ontario, 1874-1930. McGill-Queen’s U Press, 1995.
- Dublin, T. and Scheuerer, J. Why Did Aftrican-American Women Join the WCTU, 1880-1900. Binghamton, NY: State U New York, 2000.
- Harry, M. A Century of Service: The History of the WCTU of South Australia, Inc. Adelaide: WCTU of South Australia, 1986.
- Hays, A. One Hundred Years of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1974. Evanston, IL: Signal Press, 1973.
- Jordan, R. White-Ribboners. The WCTU of Tasmania, 1885-1914. Thesis. U Tasmania, 2007.
- Kuhl, M., et al. Accomplishments of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1908, vol. 32, 43-60.
- Stevens, L. The work of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1908, vol. 32, pp. 38-42.
- Tyrrell, I. Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire. The WCTU, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1991.
- Veer, J. The WCTU in Canada’s Maritime Provinces, 1875-1900. Thesis. U. ME, 1994.
- WCTU. Winners without Drugs: WCTU of NSW. Sydney, NSW: WCTU of New South Wales, 2008.
- Willard, F. Address Before the Second Biennial Convention of the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Chicago: Woman’s Temp Pub Assn., 1893.
- ________. Women and Temperance. The Work and Workers of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. NY: Arno, 1972.
- ________. The Ideal of “the New Woman” According to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. NY: Garland, 1987.